COMEDY GOLD #3: Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933)


George Cukor’s tragi-comedy Dinner At Eight (1933) is a remarkable thing. Not least because the dinner itself never actually happens. It is all about the intertwining lives of the guests in the days leading up to it, ending right after they walk into the dining-room.

Being an ensemble movie – and being a Cukor movie – it’s all about the performances: Billie Burke and her permanent ditziness as the socialite and hostess of the titular dinner, Lionel Barrymore as her husband with a failing business and failing health, John Barrymore and his tragic descent into despair as he realizes he’s a has-been, and, of course, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery as the couple who can’t stand each other. But to me, Marie Dressler is the stand-out. And in a movie whose cast includes the Barrymore brothers and arguably the most beloved blonde bombshell of the 1930s, that’s quite a feat.

In her first scene, with Lionel Barrymore, her over-the-top entrance precedes her larger-than-life performance. Carlota Vance (Dressler) is a retired stage actress, who is now broke and looking to sell her stock. She and Oliver Jordan (Barrymore) are old friends and she confides in him that she has no money, in what can only be described as a scene-stealing moment, for no other reason than her extraordinary expressions. I mean, what a face! She had the perfect face for comedy and she knew how to use it. And on top of that, what does it for me in this film is that she slips between comedy and drama seemingly without any effort, so naturally, that it only hits you a few seconds after she’s done it. Her scene with Paula (Magde Evans) towards the end is a good example of this. It’s a tender, heartfelt moment that starts off as anything but. It’s actually probably my favorite scene in the film and it’s because of Marie Dressler.

Her crowning moment, and the film’s most iconic one, is her scene with Kitty (Jean Harlow), in which she delivers one of the best putdowns in 1930s comedy and one of the funniest closing lines ever. Marie Dressler was perfect in this and rightfully got top-billing. In the original Kaufman and Ferber play, however, Constance Collier played Carlota and when you read things like that, you can’t help but think that the two of them would have been absolutely hilarious in a film together. I almost feel cheated that we didn’t get to see that. But hey, we’ll always have this and that’s good enough for me.


DOUBLE BILL #12: The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)


James Cagney once said about acting, ‘Learn your lines, find your mark, look ‘em in the eye and tell ‘em the truth.’ And he did. That was the thing about him. You always believed him, no matter what he was doing. And it was fascinating to watch. The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), in particular, are all him and about him.

The Public Enemy (dir. William A. Wellman) follows Tom Powers (Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), two neighbourhood gangsters from Chicago, throughout their lives of crime. The sheer brutality, honesty and rawness of it, both as a gangster film and a family drama, is almost unparalleled, and to have it boiled down to just ‘the grapefruit scene’ is infuriating, even though I understand it’s meant to be a representation of who Tom Powers is and what he can’t seem to be able to do. There are, however, many jaw-dropping moments throughout the film, such as the rain-soaked revenge scene, or the scene where Tom is raped by his friend’s girlfriend after she gets him drunk. Not to mention the ending. Oh, that ending…

What I love about this film is that Tom Powers is a failure in almost every way. He is a petty gangster, a hoodlum, and he knows it. He wants to break away from that but something always stands in the way. He’s an impulsive, violent thug with mother issues, and arguably no redeeming qualities, and the deeper he sinks, the harder he fights to get back up. But his moment in the sun never comes. Deservingly so. He came from nothing and he died with nothing, in one of cinema’s most horrible and brutal endings. The raw nature of the film makes Tom Powers a wonderful character. He’s so charmingly detestable, he’ll make you want to shove a grapefruit in his face.

Angels With Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz) is, again, a tale of crime and friendship. In it, childhood best friends Rocky Sullivan (Cagney in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) begin their adolescence as, you guessed it, neighbourhood hoodlums. However, as they grow older, their lives take different paths. Jerry is now a priest, and Rocky is an ex-convict. The famous Dead End kids make an appearance as the neighbourhood gang who idolizes Rocky Sullivan and whom Father Connolly wants to protect from a life of crime at all costs.

Upon his release from prison, Rocky goes to see Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) about the money he owes him. This encounter leads Rocky right back to his old ways, and for the rest of the film, he becomes a sort of anti-hero and a very ambiguous character that you can’t help but love and root for, right down to the powerful final moments. You never really know where you stand with Rocky. You can tell that he’s probably trying to redeem himself, but at the same time, he can’t help but do what he does best and for which he is worshipped. Because of this, Rocky and Jerry’s friendship is always at risk and is a constant element throughout the film. The love and the affection are still there, but they are on different sides of the moral compass and neither of them will back down, right up until their final moments together.

Angels with Dirty Faces is an incredibly powerful film, with so much going for it, and I like to think of it as a love story in the form of friendship, disguised as a gangster film. Also, might be interesting to point out that James Cagney and Pat O’Brien were actually best friends in real life, which I think is lovely.

What I find interesting about these two films and so many other gangster films of the era is that James Cagney gets his comeuppance in both of them. And in such a heart-wrenching way, as well. Him walking towards the camera in Angels is a wonderful moment. I could watch that on a loop all day along. Oh, and that’s another thing. He had a great face for close-ups. Not in a Greta Garbo way, but in a way that you would feel every single thing that he was feeling in that moment, because it beautifully incapsulated everything that happened in the film previously and signified the character’s beaking point, just like in the revenge scene from The Public Enemy. If there’s a James Cagney close-up, there’s going to be closure. Plot-wise and emotionally. And it’s beautiful.

Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945)


Because it’s Oscar season, I wanted to talk about one of my all-time favorite performances in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category, the wonderful Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945).

The Lost Weekend is a stark, honest and heart-wrenching depiction of alcoholism and its consequences, as we follow Don Birnam through his four-day drinking bender. The film starts by showing us a bottle hanging out of a window. This is Don’s apartment. We see him packing his things as his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) talks him through the weekend they’re about to have. Helen (Jane Wyman), Don’s girlfriend, comes over to see them off and casually mentions she’s going to see a show that afternoon and that she has two tickets. Don suggests that Wick should go with Helen and that they can catch the 6.30 train. Both Wick and Helen know exactly what he has in mind but he reassures them they’ve got nothing to worry about. What follows is a harrowing, nerve-wrecking sequence of events as Don gets increasingly desperate for a drink, and another, and another, culminating in that infamous ‘mouse and bat’ scene, superbly acted out by Ray Milland.

It’s hard to choose a best moment in this faultless performance, but the scene where Don explains why he does this, is surely very near the top. He’s a failed writer – we’ve all been there – and this is his way of coping with it: he drinks himself into oblivion. And the way he details his suffering in this strikingly real speech (‘There are two of us, you know: Don the drunk, and Don the writer’) is heart-breaking because it’s so true.

Ray Milland won the Oscar for his performance and, let’s face it, he had no competition. His performance was a break-through, an eye-opener and it’s completely timeless. The Lost Weekend ended up with three more Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett, adapted from Charles Jackson’s novel), but more importantly, it stands the test of time for its unafraid depiction of such a delicate subject, with a phenomenal central performance at its core.

For the love of Howard Hawks


It’s Oscar season and my friends and fellow bloggers over at Once Upon a Blog, Paula’s Cinema Club and Outspoken and Freckled are hosting their annual 31 Days of Oscar blogathon. And before we go any further I should point out that, while I love watching the Oscars and think it’s super fun to talk about them, in no way do I think the Oscars have any real merit or are reflective of anyone’s talent or body of work. I think it’s a lot more impressive to build a legacy that will outlive you than to win some awards. And if you need any proof of this, just remember that these people never won an Oscar: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Cary Grant, Thelma Ritter, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck and the subject of my post for this blogathon, Howard Hawks.

Arguably the most versatile of all directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Howard Hawks was nominated only once, for Sergeant York (1941). Even more astonishing is the fact that he continues to be slightly overlooked and not that massively well-known. He’s not really a household name, not in the way he should be, anyway. And I think that has to do with the fact that it’s hard to pinpoint him. He did so much, so well, in so many different genres, so unpretentiously and so unassumingly, that it is hard to associate him with something, in the way that you’d associate John Ford with Westerns or Alfred Hitchcock with thrillers. Howard Hawks has no genre. He did it all. Screwballs (Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century, Ball of Fire), Westerns (Rio Bravo, Red River), Action-adventure (Only Angels Have Wings), Film Noir (The Big Sleep), Gangster (Scarface), Musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)… He was so versatile, it’s incredible to think that all of these films were made by the same person. In fact, I’d say that, apart from Billy Wilder, he probably made the biggest number of classics out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And yet, he never really got the credit he deserved, even during his lifetime. He was always, perhaps fittingly, called a commercial director, but look what that produced! And even though there are some elements that you’ll usually find in a Howard Hawks film, such as the importance of male friendship or the so-called ‘Hawksian woman’, it’s still hard to immediately identify him with such trademarks, perhaps because he was so extraordinarily versatile. Maybe that was it. Was Howard Hawks just too darned good? Could he do everything so well that people took him for granted? I know I have. I didn’t even realise he was my third favorite director of all time until about two years ago when I was doing one of my ‘desert island’ situations quizzes and it turned out that I would gladly take at least four of his films with me. He’s always been there, and I never realised it. Shame, shame, shame. And speaking of Oscars, he did eventually win an Honorary Award in 1975, but we all know what those things really mean. I don’t know what film he should have won for instead and I think it’s ludicrous that he only received one nomination. But if it’s any consolation, he’s now in the grand pantheon of ‘What? Never won an Oscar?!’ people and, honestly, I think that’s probably even better.
Click here to read the other entries for the Oscar blogathon.

COMEDY GOLD #2: The dinner from Bringing up Baby (1938)

Katharine-in-Bringing-Up-Baby-katharine-hepburn-4314212-500-375Today marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere in San Francisco of Bringing up Baby (1938), so as a celebration I’ve decided to talk about one of my favorite movie moments ever. Sure, it’s hard to pick a favorite scene from Howard Hawks’ ultimate screwball comedy, but for me, those moments at the dinner table are absolutely hysterical. The first time I watched Bringing up Baby about 10 years ago, I had to replay that bit at least three times, just to take it all in. There’s so much going for it, so many little things, it’s remarkable.

It starts off with Major Applegate (Charlie Ruggles) telling Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) one of his big game hunting stories, after which he asks David ‘Mr Bone’ Huxley (Cary Grant) if he’s ever been in Arabia. David’s mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t reply. He asks him again and he says no. ‘I suppose you’ve spent most of your time in Africa?’, ‘No’, ‘Tibet, perhaps?’, ‘No.’, ‘Malay Peninsula, perchance?’, ‘Excuse me’, he says before he gets up to follow George, the dog, with the spoon still in his hand. After that, the whole thing is a hilarious disaster: David’s aloofness and continuous trips outside (with the spoon), Major Applegate’s impressions of animals noises, prompting the most priceless three-way reaction of all time – Susan (Katharine Hepburn), David and George -, and of course, Susan’s deadpan delivery of ‘It was probably an echo’, which is still one of my favorite quotes ever.

It’s such a great scene, it almost feels like it could be in a sketch show. It works wonderfully as a stand-alone scene (to a certain extent) and it’s pure comedy genius. But then again, they all are. After all, who doesn’t love Susan and David singing ‘I can’t give you anything but love, baby’ to Baby, the leopard?

Happy 80th anniversary!

DOUBLE BILL #11: Merrily We Live (1938) and My Man Godfrey (1936)


In many ways, Merrily We Live (1938) is the forgotten cousin of My Man Godfrey (1936). They are strikingly similar, plot-wise and character-wise, and yet, only one of them is a classic.

In Merrily We Live, Mrs Kilbourne (Billie Burke in her only Oscar-nominated performance) has a habit of hiring ‘tramps’ as servants, much to the annoyance of the rest of the family, Mr Kilbourne (Clarence Kolb), their children Jerry (Constance Bennett), Marion (Bonita Granvile), Kane (Tom Brown), not to mention Grosvenor (Alan Mowbray), the butler who threatens to quit every day. One day, when Rawlins (Brian Aherne) arrives at the Kilbourne residence to use their phone, Mrs Kilbourne mistakes him for a tramp and hires him as a chauffeur.

Norman Z. McLeon’s Merrily We Live is a delight and the fact that it’s virtually unknown these days is an outrage. It’s as funny and wacky as the best of them, with Billie Burke playing one of the most spendidly ditzy characters ever. She’s an absolute riot as the slightly insane matriarch, who can never keep track of anything. Brian Aherne’s Rawlins, however, is the main character, and it’s such an understated, effortlessly funny and charming performance. His romance with Jerry is one of the film’s highlights and it’s absolutely lovely. I love how adorable Merrily We Live is. Maybe that’s doing it a disservice, because it is also absolutely hilarious, but you don’t get many movies as endlessly delightful as this. And as I said, it’s ridiculous how overlooked it is.

My Man Godfrey, on the other hand, is a classic and everybody loves it. Socialite and drama queen Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) hires ‘forgotten man’ Godfrey (William Powell) as a butler, after she brings him with her to a high society scavenger hunt. Soon after, she falls in love with him (who wouldn’t?) and things get even crazier.

Gregory LaCava’s My Man Godfrey is undoubtedly one of the most famous and beloved screwball comedies of all time. There’s nothing not to love about it. William Powell’s performance is a work of art, as is Carole Lombard’s. Gail Patrick’s Cornelia is the ultimate screwball comedy villain (is that even possible?) and Mischa Auer’s Carlo is wonderfully funny as the film’s second craziest character (after Irene). The social commentary is not to be overlooked, either, with Godfrey delivering a ‘knock ‘em dead’ speech to Cornelia about what a spoiled brat she is. I think that’s one of the things that makes this film so great. It’s a screwball with a conscience, which is saying quite something about a film as zany as this.

So why have these two films gone down such drastically different paths, as far as their place in movie history goes? Are they too similar? Perhaps. Perhaps we only need one of them, and My Man Godfrey is the better of the two. It’s curious to see how these things happen. I mean, they were both extremely successful when they came out, receiving 5 and 6 Oscar nominations (Merrily and Godfrey, respectfully), so it’s a bit of a mystery why one of them is so unknown. I, for one, would love to see Merrily We Live on every ‘top 20 screwballs’ list. I think it deserves it. And you know how I like to root for the underdog.

The appeal of The Hitch-hiker (1953)


As our titular hitch-hiker ruthlessly murders unsuspecting travellers in Illinois, leaving a trail of bodies behind in the film’s opening sequence, we’re immediately stripped of any sense of comfort we may have had to begin with. The callousness and coldness with which he does it lets us know straight away that we’ve walked into one of the quintessential road thrillers of all time.

Somewhere along the way, our hitch-hiker gets picked up by Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and within seconds, he’s pointing his gun at them and forcing them to take him across the border to Mexico. His face finally comes out of the shadows in the scene’s climax and here he is. Emmett Myers. A cold, narcissistic, arrogant, cocky serial killer who is so detestable, he’s the definition of a ‘love to hate’ character. He taunts and torments Collins and Bowen relentlessly, he plays mind-games with them, he bullies them and he makes you want to slap him. That’s what you want from your villains. And William Talman nailed it. It’s an extraordinary performance. And the bum eye that doesn’t close even while he’s sleeping? Genius.

Ida Lupino’s masterful direction doesn’t let up either. Right from the off, she thrusts us into this nightmare, showing us these mindless killings by this sadistic ex-convict in the middle of nowhere. That feeling of claustrophobia and powerlessness only increases throughout the film. We’re in the middle of a vast desert, and yet we’re stuck. We’re stuck in this car, with these people, and we can’t go anywhere. We can’t escape. Just like Collins and Bowen. That’s the beauty of road thrillers, especially the hitch-hiker type. That’s what makes them so exciting. It’s what makes The Hitch-hiker so great. It’s tense, it’s stressful, and it’s impressive. And it’s educational as well. Never, ever pick-up a hitch-hiker, that’s my motto. I’ve become paranoid about these things and I can safely say this and Detour (1945) have ruined me forever.

Berkeley galore!

There was a Busby Berkeley blogathon a few days ago, which I missed. I hate not participating in blogathons, because I just love connecting with other bloggers, but I was working and I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I did talk about 42nd Street the other day, but that was just a coincidence. My friend Virginie over at The Wonderful World of Cinema did a fantastic post about five of his musicals (check it out if you can), and now I’ve made a mental note to have a Busby Berkeley marathon one of these days. Can’t wait. This type of thing really comes in handy when you just can’t decide what to watch.

Re-watching 42nd Street (1933)


So, I’ve been trying to re-watch a lot of films lately. And for some reason, this was one of those films that I kept forgetting to re-watch. I saw it millions of years ago, probably 2009 or 2010, and then I just forgot to watch it again. I liked it the first time, so I don’t know why I left it this long. But this week, I finally saw 42nd Street again.

The grand-daddy of all showbiz musicals takes us through the production, rehearsals and backstage antics of Pretty Lady, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter)’s last Broadway show. At the last minute, newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to replace leading lady Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), when the latter breaks her ankle. Welcome to show-business.

Despite it being a great film overall and throughout, it’s the final moments that firmly cement 42nd Street in its iconic place. Those wonderful, extravagant, lavish Busby Berkeley numbers that everybody loves, not to mention Ruby Keeler’s rendition of the title number. This is what makes 42nd Street what it is. The plot it as straight-forward as can be, and some say there are a few clichés here and there. And of course there are, but this is where they came from.

I like those 1930s showbiz movies (Stage Door (1937) comes to mind). I think they’re as timeless and current as ever. I’m talking about the ‘behind-the-scenes’. You know, sleazy producers, casting couches and all that. I mean, sure, 42nd Street is lovely and adorable and full of great numbers, but it also shines a light on that, with plenty of suggestive scenes and carefully placed innuendo. Right off the bat, in the opening scene, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s producer, tells Dorothy that he wants her to do something for him… Cut to the next scene, and we see that they’re going ahead with the stupidly named Pretty Lady and that it’s going to be a success. Obviously.

I like 42nd Street. It’s not one of my biggest favorites (no particular reason), but I like it. I’m glad I could finally watch it again, after so many years. I like this ‘re-watching’ thing. When your ‘to re-watch’ list gets nearly as big as your ‘to-watch’ list, it’s quite nice to finally get through it.


Why I love The Philadelphia Story (1940)


The privileged class enjoying its privileges, as Mike Connor (James Stewart in an Oscar-winning role) puts it. And why not? The Philadelphia Story is high society at its best. Or is it worst? Either way, it’s marvellous to watch as the cracks start to show. Everything from failed marriages, to infidelities, to excessive drinking… all with a touch of class and humor that will make you want to reach for the champagne. This is the greatest romantic comedy of all time, in my opinion.

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is about to marry George Kittredge (John Howard), when her ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up unannounced the day before, with reporter Mike Connor and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) – pretending to be Tracy’s brother’s friends – sent there by Spy Magazine, who want to get the scoop on the wedding. Chaos, naturally, ensues.

We all that George Cukor was the greatest director of actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He knew how to get the best performances out of his actors and he knew how to let them shine. And The Philadelphia Story is probably the greatest testament to this. Full of wonderful performances, from Hepburn’s haughty, spoiled rich woman with a heart, to Virginie Weidler’s Dinah, the sister, who might just be one of the funniest characters ever. For some reason, this hardly ever comes up under ‘ensemble cast movies’, maybe because there are three well-defined leads, but by golly, isn’t it just a wonder to watch all those people interact with each other? I mean, they had such phenomenal chemistry, all of them, including Cary Grant and Ruth Hussey, in the regrettably few scenes they have together – particularly the scene when they talk about Mike (‘Why don’t you marry him?’). A lovely moment and one that shows that The Philadelphia Story has a heart too, on top of being hilarious. And that’s one of the things I love about it. Those little moments. Like Tracy and Dexter’s conversation on the morning of the wedding (I’m such an unholy mess of a girl’). Such a tender moment.

Of course, one of the things everybody talks about when it comes to The Philadelphia Story is that ridiculously great (and Oscar-winning) script by Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Phillip Barry. Nearly every line is dripping with wit and class and I’d say it’s probably in top 10 most quotable films of all time. I myself am still trying to work ‘Hello Dexter, hello George, hello Mike’ into a casual conversation. Not easy.

The Philadelphia Story has been my ultimate desert island movie for about ten years. It is always the first one that comes to mind when that question comes up. I guess it’s because it’s got everything. It’s got three of my favorite people of all time, it’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s sophisticated (is soph-com a thing? If not, it should be), and it’s comforting. Like a warm blanket. Let’s raise a glass to The Philadelphia Story!